BUILT TO SPILL: KEEP IT LIKE A SECRET (1999)
1) The Plan; 2) Center Of The Universe; 3) Carry The Zero; 4) Sidewalk; 5) Bad Light; 6) Time Trap; 7) Else; 8) You Were Right; 9) Temporarily Blind; 10) Broken Chairs.
Okay, so this time the songs are shorter. But not that shorter — instead of eight, there's ten, and shortening them does not necessarily mean that they become less complex in structure or more immediately accessible. It does seem that the record is not so hotly bent on making a sweeping musical statement as its predecessor — rather, this time around it is again just a collection of pop-rock songs on various topics, all characterized by Doug Martsch's guitar-and-vocal trademarks but without letting us know that Built To Spill intend to conquer the world in the next 7 hours.
But ambition or no, once again I have to say that Martsch is an efficient generator of ideas in harsh need of a second partner to bring them up to speed. Case in point: the best song on the album is arguably ʽElseʼ, an allegro pop-rocker with romantic vocals, psychedelic guitars, and convoluted lyrics that seem to concern the protagonist's inability to cope with his love urges, but might as well be about physical illness — anyway, its spiralling lead guitar line and arching vocal modulations bear the stamp of beauty, nay, gorgeousness even, but neither of the two is given a strong enough presence to stand out. The vocals are buried, the lead line is never louder than the unremarkable rhythm pattern, and although the music actually develops along the way (there's a lengthy coda where Martsch tries out several guitar tricks and effects), it does not really feel as if it developed — everything is so smooth. Bluntly speaking, the guy came up with potentially sharp hooks, and then spent his time in the studio dulling them up.
Other than this little detail (namely, that all the songs here kinda suck), all the songs on this album are excellent. Smart guitar melodies, smart lyrics, smartly engineered seams between the different parts — and when I say «smart», I don't just mean «specializing in innovative, but emotionally meaningless chord changes»: I mean really evocative, emotionally charged melodies that transfer a whole variety of vibes, most of them positive and uplifting, even if the lyrics usually deal with various personal problems. Only the lengthy album closer ʽBroken Chairsʼ, slowing down to a relative crawl and awash in agonizingly distorted solos, breaks this sequence with the obvious intention of depressing you in the end — not entirely successful, because as Doug goes over the top about piling one psycho-bluesy solo on top of another during the final jam, the whole thing becomes «trippy» rather than «depressing», and you will probably emerge from the experience with your eyes rolled back and your tongue hanging out, rather than with the bitter knowledge that there is no hope whatsoever for the human race. But did you know, really, that crows are "mirrors of apprehension in the fallen sun"? I didn't. The lyrics sure as hell don't add much to that depressing effect.
Additional highlights — ʽCenter Of The Universeʼ, whose opening riff creates a musical vortex of sorts (yes, Martsch is really good at «bends and wobbles», as Robert Fripp would call them); ʽTemporarily Blindʼ, whose cobweb of ringing, sighing, sirening, and grinning guitars will confuse your ears before suddenly merging into one single power riff, then exploding once again into a miriad of kaleidoscopic sounds; and the song that most people talk about when they mention this record, because it is so much easier to talk about words than notes — ʽYou Were Rightʼ, in which Martsch collects as many classic rock negative clichés as possible ("all we are is dust in the wind", "we're all just bricks in the wall", "it's a hard rain's gonna fall", "this is the end") and acknowledges their truthfulness over a tired, stuttering tempo, ending the song by repeatedly asking the question "do you ever think about it?". Stupid rocker, if we never thought about it, would we even be coming up with all these trite phrases in the first place?
Anyway, here comes another thumbs up to another album that commands unambiguous respect, but hardly ever gives me any emotional thrills. I have no idea what it would take to make these songs really work — additional instruments beside guitars? a different vocalist? a better mix? a less impressionistic verbal style? atmospheric voiceovers from a resurrected Vincent Price? whatever. I'd still take the simple, «trivial», but so highly efficient guitar sound of Nirvana over this by default — however, whenever you are in the mood for something that's very Nineties, very pop-rock, very far removed from the avantgarde spirit, but also somehow quite challenging and inventive, well... just Keep It Like A Secret, and we'll be able to carry the Built To Spill legacy, untarnished and unspoiled by excessive popularity, through the coming years.